I suppose one advantage of lockdown is that we’re all learning a lot more about our immediate surroundings as we take our daily state-sanctioned exercise. And there’s still something new to learn about the natural world even in the dark days of winter. Like an entirely new form of ice that turns out to be the bastard godchild of an unassuming-looking fungus.
A local friend had posted pictures of ‘weird looking ice’ on Facebook this morning, and I’d done some research* which seemed to indicate that it was something called ‘hair ice’. It is by all accounts quite rare, so I wasn’t expecting to stumble across it ourselves on our walk after lunch. Naturally I hadn’t brought my camera – it’s an iron law that I will only see something interesting if I don’t – so I had to carefully carry a half-rotten frozen stick home with me so it could be photographed for posterity.
Worth it I think, though, because it is extraordinary looking stuff. Even knowing what it is, it just doesn’t look like it’s made of ice. The Met Office has a good explanation of how it is formed, as well as this wonderful timelapse video (below), but the short version is that water in the wood is extruded out of the pores as ice as it freezes and the presence of Exidiopsis effusa prevents it from forming larger crystals (she says with an airy wave of the hand while squinting at Wikipedia).
What exciting local phenomenon did you notice today?
I’ve had a curious week, in that I haven’t done anything I’m actually being paid to do, and yet somehow the whole week was filled with work-shaped activities – attending meetings, writing up notes, editing documents, planning activities, and researching and writing up briefings (let this be a terrible warning to anyone who has a habit of starting cycle campaigns). Apart from one brief hour when I managed to get some gardening done, our statutory daily walk, and the glorious moment when I realised that when a meeting is held online and your part in it is done you can just … leave, I’ve basically done nothing but sit at my computer.
Today, however, I had no scheduled meetings, the weather was fine-adjusted-for-January (not actually raining, icy or blowing a hoolie) and I had a recently serviced bike that really ought to be put through its paces to check everything was working fine.
So I can report that the Brooks saddle has been repaired and is in fact as good as new. Anyone who’s ridden a Brooks will know that this is not actually a good thing: it has been tautened to the point that it is no longer a glorious hammock of comfiness. It’s not agony, or anything, but it no longer feels quite like sitting on a sofa and it’s clearly going to take a bit of either getting used to, or breaking in.
There’s only one way to do that, and that’s to put in the miles on the bike. I’ve been struggling to motivate myself to ride my bike when there’s not a reason to do so, so at least this gives me a purpose to ride it a bit more in the coming weeks of lockdown.
Well, that – and checking the level on the ford of course.
After weeks of weather warnings that have amounted to at best a dusting of snow, we woke unexpectedly to this:
It’s like the Weather Gods knew my bike’s saddle was due to be repaired today (along with the rest of the bike – this winter has been tough on it; it turns out not riding it much is worse for it than riding it almost every day). Yesterday was lovely and mild and would have been perfect weather for taking the bike out on my state-sanctioned exercise but the bike was stuck in the bike shop. Today wasn’t looking quite so inviting …
However, the snow hasn’t lasted – and we are feeling quite confident that the cold snap won’t be prolonged because our ritual walk up to the road end and inspection of the empty grit bin revealed exciting developments:
I wasn’t that hopeful we’d see any grit at all, as the last missive I had from the council on the subject – despite sending an email clearly requesting that our existing grit bin be filled, complete with a note of the grit bin number and its location – was that my request for a new grit bin had been passed to the roads department and would be granted if it was in line with the council’s winter maintenance policy. At a time when we’re all trying to cut down on plastic waste providing a whole new grit bin for every load of grit seems a bit excessive, so I’m glad that it didn’t come with any unnecessary packaging after all…
Anyway, the bike has returned triumphant from the bike shop with a new mudguard, cassette, chain and brake blocks so I look forward to making it all a bit less shiny-looking over the next few days.
The garden may still be under a frosty lockdown but – whatever else happens in 2021 – spring at least will be coming soon (usually sooner than I’m ever prepared for).
So today I got my seed supplies out and did a quick audit of what’s still viable and what I might like to grow this year.
It’s fair to say that I’ve got into a bit of a veg growing rut recently – it’s easier to stick to what you know especially when spring can be a busy time for me. But For a couple of years now I’ve had problems with my potatoes with a good third of last year’s crop starting to rot in the ground before I could even harvest them. The ones that remained did keep better than I’d feared but it’s a sign that I should probably give potatoes a rest and see if I can put the space to better use.
Time to get the catalogues out and allow myself to be seduced by the wonderful descriptions into believing that a world of amazing flavours and trouble-free bounty lies ahead of me in those seductive little paper packets. It’s the hope that keeps you going, isn’t it? Otherwise the current situation might just sink us all. And who knows, given our neighbours’ success last year, I might even manage to grow carrots. Stranger things have happened in these unprecedented times.
I just have to wait for things to thaw out a little first …
Not that I’ve given up on the sourdough – if anything, now that we’re both at home all day, I’m baking more of it than ever, it’s just that it’s become somewhat routine. I was excited during the first lockdown to be godmother to a number of baby sourdough starters as various friends and Twitter contacts started asking my advice, for some reason (I hope they also consulted a few people who actually know what they’re doing), but I did slightly envy them the excitement of starting a new project seeing how much pleasure I’ve got out of my own sourdough adventures.
After miraculously managing to lose weight during the first lockdown, despite cycling drastically fewer miles, we’ve been somewhat pushing our luck in this latest incarnation by upping our culinary game. Not only did we try once of those fancy ‘restaurant in a box’ meals for our wedding anniversary, but I’ve also been trying to spend a bit more time away from the computer by attempting a few more elaborate dishes that take my fancy that I wouldn’t normally have time, which for me tends to mean sweet things.
Given that I also gave the other half an ice cream maker for his birthday last year (the best present ever, certainly from my point of view), it was clear that if I was to continue to fit into my jeans, I was going to have to develop some slightly more healthy ambitions than ‘perfect my shortcrust pastry technique’, hence sauerkraut which has all the potential rabbithole ahoy interest of sourdough for those who want to take it further, plus plenty of reputed gut flora benefits, without going completely down the path of kimchi, kombucha or (the one I’d really try if I had the courage, because who doesn’t want to be nursing what is effectively an improvised explosive device in their pantry?) home-brewed ginger beer.
So anyway, a couple of weeks ago, following the instructions helpfully supplied in the Weekend Guardian I sliced up a cabbage our neighbour had given us, massaged in the salt as instructed, added a few flavourings (if the last few 8-year-old juniper berries from the bottom of the spice jar count as ‘flavouring’) and left it in a ‘cool well-ventilated place’ to await its miraculous transformation.
After the suggested few days I tasted it to discover I had basically made some very salty raw shredded cabbage. So, I tried diluting the brine a bit, left it a bit longer (faintly tangy and ever-so-slightly less salty cabbage), left it a bit longer (possible faint echoes of sauerkraut) and then decided that perhaps keeping it in the effectively unheated utility room might be part of the problem (I should remember that London-based cookery writers’ interpretation of ‘a cool place’ may be different than for those of us living in Scotland). So it’s now found its niche in our kitchen where – a fortnight after I started – the other half has pronounced it as tasting ‘almost like sauerkraut’.
I’m reminding myself that this is probably better than the internet dubbing my second attempt at sourdough ‘dwarf bread’, and will persevere, hoping this isn’t something that ends in tears. Or, indeed, botulism…
After a week of work, grim weather and lockdown torpor I finally had an excuse to get on my bike today – meeting a friend for some outdoor exercise, fully within the lockdown rules (at least at the time of writing). The forecast was for it to be as decent as we could hope for in January: dry, relatively unwindy and not as bastarding cold as it’s been recently, so we grabbed the opportunity while it lasted.
Unfortunately, while still within the letter of the forecast, the weather that greeted me this morning was not really in the spirit of ‘decent weather’ in that it was extremely foggy (and indeed, stayed that way all day) as well as a bit icy underfoot. Fortunately my ice tyres had no problem with the slippy stuff, but (as I’ve mentioned before), switching to my winter wheels means losing my hub dynamo so I had to take an improvised approach to fitting the Brompton’s front light onto the big bike, having not left enough time to switch the bracket over properly.
Amazingly, this worked, which is far more than I deserved.
Anyway, duly lit and shod, the bike and I made it safely to our rendezvous, we had a lovely and rather atmospheric (if less than scenic, in the sense of being able to see any actual scenery) walk and a natter, and just as I was moving the bike to head home we heard the ominous clatter of something that sounded important falling off the bike and found a sheared bolt.
After some head scratching about what it could possibly be, and even whether it had come off my bike at all (not to put too fine a point on it, it didn’t look either filthy or rusty enough to belong to my bike), I checked the moving parts over carefully, found nothing obviously loose or hanging off – and then attempted to mount my bike only to discover it had been the tensioning bolt of my Brooks saddle.
This made for an … interesting five-mile ride home, attempting not to put too much weight on the partly unmoored saddle. I’ve put a fair few miles into my bike’s saddle and I didn’t want to damage the leather if I could help it, as it’s reached sofa levels of comfiness.
Anyway, Twitter has confirmed that this is a known thing with Brooks saddles, that a replacement bolt can easily be purchased for a fiver, and that fitting it requires much swearing and the sort of mechanical ingenuity that someone who can’t even work out which way round her tyres should be put on (even when there is an arrow on the tyre to show her) is ever going to muster. So although I have ordered the bolt, I will be taking it and the saddle down to the bike shop as soon as it arrives. Some things are just best left to the professionals.
One of the unanticipated side effects of moving from a dark, rather cold house when it was usually warmer to be outside, to a much better insulated sunnier one is that I have much less desire to get out on the bike when it’s cold. On cold bright days I can enjoy the sunshine from inside, and on cold miserable ones I can see the weather coming from a long way off and it tends to put me off. Add in lockdown, and the lack of an enforced bike ride for the paper every day, and with the weather we’ve been having (-7C this morning, apparently, thank you Weather Gods) it’s not surprising that I haven’t been out on the bike since Monday, when the First Minister announced we were going back into lockdown.
Still, today I had a couple of errands to run, which seemed justification enough to get back on the bike. I had intended to go to the post office but with Bigtownshire going from one of the regions with the lowest number of coronavirus cases in Scotland to the second highest in less than two weeks (and 90% of cases being the new, more transmissible, version) the risk of having to queue for the post office seemed like a white-knuckle ride too far, so I confined my shopping to the (almost deserted) garage instead.
The roads weren’t too slippy, fortunately, so, COVID aside, the chief danger to life and limb was the risk of frostbite while taking photos (did I mention it got down to minus 7 at all?) and my fellow road users. I noticed during the last lockdown that while 90% of the traffic might have disappeared, the 10% that remained were almost 100% the sort of drivers who think it’s fine to pass a cyclist on a blind bend or a single track road 50 yards before they get to a passing place and it turns out during this new lockdown the same thing holds, but with slightly more traffic and added icy verges. I don’t think it helps that without my hub dynamo I no longer have a rear light on all the time – anecdotally I have noticed far more of the sort of close passes where the driver just acts as if the bicycle isn’t there, or has zero width. I realise logically that ascribing reason to the average UK driver around bicycles makes as much sense as blaming the weather on the actions of some made up minor deities, but I wonder if a massively bright rear light just makes me look like a ‘proper’ road user – maybe a motorbike – until they get close enough to realise it’s just the local madwoman on a pushbike by which time they’ve already started to pass me sensibly.
However, despite their best efforts, I survived both hazards and got some much-needed exercise (I don’t think our state-sanctioned stroll down the road end to inspect the rubbish bag status and/or grit bin really counts). And given that we seem to be coping with this lockdown by eating our way through it, it may not have been a moment too soon. We’ve a thaw coming in the forecast, so I might have to drag myself out again just for the exercise – which may just involve swinging by to check out the ford.
Since I last posted we’ve gone back into full lockdown meaning we’re only allowed out for essential purposes, which includes exercise and shopping for food but not, as far as I can tell, going to buy a paper* (and you never quite know who’s watching, either …)
The ice and cold have also given way to snow – not more than a dusting really, but enough to make things very pretty and keeping it local today was not a hardship.
When all this started back in March, and thought it would all soon be over, I started a little timelapse of the arrival of the spring leaves during our daily walks. I don’t think I had any inkling I’d be doing the same thing by the time the snow arrived.
Tonight and tomorrow we’ve got hard overnight frosts forecast, which was excuse enough for me to pursue my new favourite hobby: gritting the road, much to the eager anticipation and ultimate disappointment of the neighbouring sheep:
It turns out sheep really really like road salt and have been known to knock open grit bins to get at the contents. This may explain why they’ve been keeping such a close eye on the bin that’s by our gate (so far, still unraided) although the absence of little sheep hoofprints and the presence of large bootprints beside the emptied grit bin at the road end suggests that if they are behind the Great Grit Bin Heist of 2021, then they’re cleverer than we thought.
* If I understand the regulations right, I can quite legally cycle down to the shop, as that’s exercise, but I can’t then go in and buy just a paper, as that would be inessential shopping. However, if I also bought a bar of chocolate that would be food shopping, which would be fine. Or perhaps a scotch egg, just to be on the safe side.
Those of you hoping that 2021 might be a little less … upside down than 2020 might want to look away now. For I bring you news of our latest excitement: The Great Grit Bin Heist of 2021.
Previously on Town Mouse, you might remember, it snowed, and I had hoped that putting the ice tyres on my bike might lead to a thaw, but instead it’s just been dry and sunny every day since then but oh so cold, which is better than almost all the winter alternatives, I suppose. We have two grit bins for our road, which we use to clear the worst bits when it snows or freezes and mostly the road is now fine, apart from a small glacier on the way to the road end, which is currently still negotiable on foot, car and appropriately shod bike.
We walk this way almost every day, as we have done since March, and because we don’t get out much anywhere else these days we’ve been keeping an eye on the grit bin at the road end. It has a loose lid, which is usually weighted down with a couple of the thermal bricks you find inside storage heaters, which appear to be one of those universal things everyone has hanging around in a little pile somewhere from when they took out their storage heaters in case they come in handy.* Sometimes the grit bin lid is closed and weighted down, and sometimes the lid is not, and these things come to be of interest when that’s about all that changes from day to day.
And then, on today’s walk we were confronted by this:
(this is in fact a reconstruction of the scene that confronted us as I didn’t have my phone with me and I had to then walk all the way back to the house to get it and come back to take the photo and as it was bloody Baltic, I hope you appreciate my dedication to the blog)
Our grit bin has been emptied out by person or persons unknown. Honestly, is nothing sacred? Anyway, I have taken decisive action to track down the culprits, by posting the photos on New Nearest Village’s Facebook group, which was set up to coordinate help during the start of the pandemic, but has recently mostly been about tracking down the identity of the dog owner who isn’t picking up their dog’s poo (is there a dog poo equivalent of Godwin’s Law? I sense that, in the end, all local groups end up being about dog poo unless they were set up to discuss dog poo, in which case they’re probably happily delving into the intricacies of plainsong, or nuclear physics, or other off-topic discussions much to the distress of the group administrators). There has been some amateur sleuthing going on concerning CCTV footage, so I have no doubt that when the finest minds of Nearest Village CSI switch their attention to our grit bin woes, we’ll soon get an answer, although I now realise I should probably have taken some better photographs of the footprints in front of the bin, just in case anyone recognises them.
More on this story, as it develops.
In cheerier news, despite the fact that even the kale isn’t very happy about the weather we’ve been having recently, the broccoli seems to be living its best life and is still sprouting as it has been happily since September even though it’s supposed to wait until spring. Obviously its idea of ‘spring’ and mine are very different but I guess I’ll take my small victories where I can find them.
* I know this because we have just such a pile and when a friend visited the first thing she said on inspecting the garden was ‘Did you just take out storage heaters? We had a pile like that for about 10 years…’